I’ve reviewed every single title in the Saints Row series, and I’ve played each of them not only to completion but to the point of ridiculousness. I can’t honestly say the same thing for the Grand Theft Auto series. It isn’t that GTA isn’t fun – it’s that the mission structure is, until most recently, restrictive. Saints Row was released two years after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; one of the most successful GTA titles to date. When it was released in 2006, it was a little more light hearted and irreverent than San Andreas, but still focused on serious subjects like gang violence, drugs, and other seedy activities. With Grand Theft Auto IV on the horizon in 2008, Volition struck back with a little more silliness under the hood for Saints Row 2. When that ridiculousness paid off, the team at Volition realized quickly that they didn’t have to compete with Grand Theft Auto, instead running in their own direction with a style all their own. Hell, even acerbic wit Yahtzee gave it high praise, declaring it his game of the year. Saints Row The Third took it to the next level, becoming self-referential by pointing out just how commercial The 3rd Street Saints have become. After the collapse of THQ, and Deep Silver coming to the rescue, the team at Volition are ready to release Saints Row IV. If you thought Saints Row The Third was silly, let me assure you…you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
Derivative. Crazy. Infested. Surprising. Stupid. FUN! Any number of these could be used to describe Saints Row IV. The game opens with the protagonist assaulting some unnamed Arab terrorist camp headed up by an old friend from S.T.A.G. – the anti-gang unit that appears in the end-game in Saints Row The Third. As the protagonist stops a nuclear missile heading for Washington D.C., landing directly in the Oval Office chair behind the Resolute Desk, we fast forward four years where we’ve become President of the United States. Taking over the “White Crib”, we fairly immediately face our most difficult challenge yet – an alien invasion from a race called the Zin. As our long-time friends and fellow Saints are abducted one by one, we soon find ourselves facing off against the alien leader Zinyak. Bravado and swagger can’t save us this time and we are thrown into a computer simulation designed specifically to torture us. What unfolds next is part Matrix, part Crackdown, part Prototype, and all Volition at their best. Welcome back to the very twisted world of Saints Row.
Johnny Gat: “Hell yeah. Who doesn’t wanna be Johnny Gat?”
The biggest way you can fight back against Zinyak and his horde is to take over his simulation and break it. Just like the movie The Matrix, overcoming the constraints of reality quickly grants the player access to super sprint and super jump. Very early in this title, the gameplay takes on a completely new slant from the previous three. In the first three titles you spent a great deal of time racking up money, buying businesses, and then customizing your vehicles to get around. When you finally got access to the helicopter, the world opens up so you could focus on the story. In Saints Row IV, you are the helicopter. With the ability to glide not unlike you could in Activision’s Prototype, you are able to traverse the virtual Steelport world quickly. This has two direct effects – it’s a ton of fun, and you quickly forget that you’ve already explored this city previously.
Super glide and run are not the only changes to the formula. Rather than simply buying business to add to your bankroll, you’ll have to navigate a new hacking minigame to take them over, selecting connection routes in a similar fashion to what we saw in Bioshock. A few new minigames join the fray, including most noticeably Professor Genki’s Mind Over Murder which has you throwing vehicles, mascot heads, and people through festively-colored rings, Mech Suit Mayhem which is exactly what you imagine it to be, and three Rift variants that have you platforming using your new speed and glide power, or dodging waist-high walls as you run down a tunnel like a sewer shark. Some returning games have been retooled. Mayhem now uses a Zin tank, and Streaking has been replaced with Blazin’ – a high-speed distraction that has you zipping through a specific race path for time. Insurance Fraud also returns, but your super powers make it a whole lot more interesting. The distractions serve as good fodder for extending the game, but they are a great deal of mindless fun as well. They wear out their welcome right about the time you run out of them.
I keep mentioning other games while talking about Saints Row IV, and with the jumping and speed running, there is no doubt that there will be comparisons to Crackdown. The comparisons won’t stop there either. In Crackdown you get upgrades by finding orbs, and in Saints Row IV you’ll earn your new powers in the same way. After just a few hours I found myself in the same exact behavior – tracking down all 1,255 of the clusters in the game to build my powers. Listening for their telltale sound (until I got the upgrade that lets me see them on the map), it felt like the magic of that title all over again, but in a new setting.
How much time did it take for me to find every cluster, play every minigame, complete all 37 single player missions, and everything else Saint’s Row IV has to offer? Just a few minutes under 20 hours. For the people who say “This is just an expansion pack” I say “you are completely wrong.”
Johnny Gat: “All I’m sayin’ is that since you got here you’ve been nothin’ but talk.”
Saints Row has always had some solid voice work. Keith David, Michael Clark Duncan, David Carradine, Tia Carrere, Daniel Dae Kim, Mila Kunis, Brian Tee, Jay Mohr, Michael Rappaport, Jaime Pressly, Michael Dorn, Jennifer Hale, Eliza Dushku, Neil Patrick Harris, Hulk Hogan, Sasha Grey, Troy Baker, Terry Crews, and Nolan North is a short list of some of the famous names attached to this series. Other than the folks who have unfortunately passed away, amazingly they’ve nearly all made a comeback in some form or another for Saints Row IV. There is NOTHING in this game that isn’t completely ridiculous, and that includes the voice acting and script.
Kicking off with the player becoming President, the game takes some twists that surprised me and took the story in a rather dark direction. After the Zin attacked the Earth, the player is thrown into a personal mental prison inside of a pod on the Zin ship, not unlike in the movie, The Matrix. Beyond that there is nothing you can take seriously in Saints Row IV, but somehow the voice actors deliver their lines with gravitas, incredulity, and sometimes passion, but always with a laugh.
When a game doesn’t take itself seriously, you might imagine that to be a bad thing, but Saints Row IV is about having fun and blowing shit up. Ridiculous powers that horrifically unbalance the shooting game? Check. Abilities that give you more speed to traverse the map faster than any vehicle? Done. Hell, in the endgame you’ll have the power to unleash a blast equivalent to a small nuclear bomb. This game grants power to the player so far out of whack from what you’d expect in a sandbox game of this type, but somehow it just ends up being fun. I stopped riding in vehicles. I spent more time hurling fireballs from my hands than shooting pistols or rifles. I have heard hours of dubstep from the Dubstep Gun, forcing Zin and humans (and their cars) to bounce to my destructive whims. Once it gets going, there is no game that plays like Saints Row IV.
About Saints Flow: “If cocaine and coffee fucked in an alley, this would be the baby they left in the trashcan. “
There are a number of bugs, mostly cosmetic, in Saints Row IV. As I was writing notes for my review, I had annotated that because of the ability to essentially fly, you’d hardly ever hear any of the (admittedly solid) licensed music because vehicles become useless. Roughly 11 hours into the game, suddenly the audio kicked in and worked for the bulk of the next nine hours (with some odd and occasional cutting out) as I flew around the city. The audio issues don’t stop there – there is a very-repeatable bug where Keith David gives a speech about how The President is currently handling the situation and how he might do it differently that repeats every single time I load the game. Even after beating the game this audio bit persists any time I hit continue from the main menu. There is still plenty of voice repetition from the main character like we’d seen in previous Saints Row titles, so that wasn’t surprising, but hearing a “Whohooo!” or something similar every 3rd or so data cluster you pick up (and there are over 1000 of them) gets old in a hurry. Beyond the occasional clipping issues (capes are always janky) there are also stability problems. Over the course of 20 hours I had six full crashes to desktop, including one during the end-game credits, and once at the main menu. I also jumped directly into the center of a building and was unable to get out, forcing a quit to the main menu to respawn.
Other than the issues with stability and cosmetics, there was only one gameplay choice that really aggravated me – the hacking system. The minigame itself is fun, but for some reason Volition doesn’t let the player back out of a hack once they start. Well, the world continues on in the background, so if you are being attacked you can expect to die and have to retry the minigame once you fly there again from the spawn point. In fact, over the course of 20 hours of gameplay I died 11 times – almost every one of them courtesy of the hacking minigame.
Johnny Gat: “How much murderin’ do I get to do?”
Like Saints Row The Third, Saints Row IV supports a full cooperative multiplayer experience. The game lets you run through all 37 missions of the main campaign with a partner. There are occasionally small changes in activities that are started in co-op, but most of the diversions are designed with two players in mind. That said, I prefer my sandbox worlds as a single player experience, so my review is based on balance (or awesome lack thereof) for a single runner.
Saints Row IV feels like the swan song to the series, and Volition has recently confirmed that the Saints, in their current iteration, are going to be taking a bit of a break. The game brings back damned near everything that was cool with all three of the previous titles. There are cameos galore, more movie and game quotes than I could ever begin to express, and things only get progressively more awesome/silly near the endgame. I couldn’t take away the fun of discovering these little twists, but suffice it to say that this game was built as an homage to the history of gaming. Sure it’s derivative. Sure it leans heavily on shallow and easy humor. Sure it borrows unrelentingly and unabashedly from any source Volition could pry into the product. Somehow all of that comes together to create a game that is fun, hilarious, addictive, and demands that you find every single collectable possible. As a game reviewer, I don’t often get to spend a great deal of time finding all of the “pieces of candy” in a game, so when I spend the extra time, it means something. If you like your sociopathic fun somewhere beyond the intersection of insane and unapologetic, you’ll love Saints Row IV.